The Woman from the East

Author: Katja Oskamp
Translator: Jo Heinrich


She does what she feels she has to, she is in charge of her own fate and she never plays the victim. The most powerful thing the GDR brought to the table was its feminine side. A portrait.

21:30, Fulda Station, platform 3: shift begins. Sabrina stands at the deserted platform edge, on her back a rucksack with the company logo. She chews some gum while she waits. A stocky woman with wavy blonde hair, she is forty years old; she wears sturdy trainers, three-quarter length jeans and a t-shirt with the bold inscription in English ‘Total Life Forever’. The train draws in and comes to a halt. Sabrina grabs the bars by the door with both hands, and quickly climbs up the three steps into the train’s cab, as if she were emerging from a swimming pool to dry off. In the cab with its smell of heat and metal, she turns to slam the iron door shut behind her. She throws off her rucksack and swings up into her seat behind the enormous control panel. This is the Taurus, a bull amongst engines, and Sabrina’s favourite. When it starts up it makes a little ascending tune, a scale in C-major: surprisingly dainty for this booming, quivering beast. Sabrina hums along. ‘Goes like hell,’ she says to herself, enthroned in her executive seat with its headrest and its fancy suspension, which sways and rocks her body. Her gold earrings flash as they catch the light.

Sabrina is a train driver, and today she needs to take an empty train to Regensburg. She’s alone for the journey. She zigzags across Germany for ten days in a row, every day a different engine, every night a different hotel, or vice versa, depending on her shift. She presides over nearly 10,000 horsepower and a 641-metre train, gliding out into the greenish-blue summer evening.

Sabrina was born in the Weissensee area of Berlin. She is the product of a mishap between an ageing cook and a seventeen-year-old unskilled cook’s assistant. The cook had family elsewhere, and soon disappeared from the scene. Her mother beat, bullied, and neglected her unwanted child. Her grandfather threatened to go to court and demanded custody. From then on, Sabrina grew up with her grandparents. It was, in fact, her granddad who had chosen her name and written her a poem when she was born. He took his granddaughter to swim training, and celebrated her victories. When Sabrina was nine, he sent her to advanced Russian classes. He worked as an engineer in a tyre factory, and when he came home late, Sabrina would be waiting for him so that he could wish her a good night. When she was twelve, her granddad died. She could see the ambulance in front of the house when she came home from school. After that, Sabrina was alone with her overburdened grandma and she began to look after herself. To this day, she’s never visited her granddad’s grave, and she’s no longer in contact with her mother.

At fourteen, Sabrina started at a residential school for prospective Russian teachers. Out of 150 students, 140 were girls, brought together from all over the GDR. The days at the elite school were severely regimented: up at six, ‘political information’ three times a week in Russian, supervised homework, countless obligatory sessions and strictly regulated results. Sabrina’s grades were very good, and it was only for conduct that she was consistently getting average marks. Her hair was dyed red at that point, and looked like a broom. When the head instructed her to kindly get a proper haircut, she turned up the next morning with a shaved head, and was expelled from the school. That was at the end of the tenth year. She got on a train and went back to Berlin. When she got there, her old friend Mirco was at the station.

In the summer holidays, Sabrina went to the careers advice centre. The woman working there said she’d come much too late: all the apprenticeships had been allocated long before. Sabrina didn’t give up: ‘I’ll do anything but cooking,’ she said. That September, she started an apprenticeship with Deutsche Reichsbahn, on the railways. 500 trainees, one girl. In the summer of 1988, she finished the apprenticeship and began shunting. In the spring of 1989, she became pregnant by Mirco. In the autumn of 1989, the Wall came down.

23:15, 119 kilometres, approaching Ochsenfurt. It’s dark now. Sabrina isn’t using a computer, nor does she need full beam. She could almost drive this stretch blindfolded. It’s as dark in the cab as it is outside. Only the drone of the engine cuts through the silence. Familiarity with the track is crucial in her line of work, she says. It takes time, and you can lose it over time, too. In the distance, flashes of lightning are twitching, snatching desolate cloudy visions out of the darkness for split seconds. There’s no thunder to be heard. Fat drops of rain burst noiselessly on the windscreen. Mute midsummer storms.

With the water on the tracks, the train begins to lurch. Sabrina imitates the faltering noise and drops sand onto the rails to maintain the traction between wheels and track. Then she gets her food out of the fridge. Mirco made her sandwiches for her. Mirco is a trained chef, just like the father Sabrina never got to know.

Although tiredness encroaches after midnight, Sabrina doesn’t drink coffee; in fact, she drinks very little during her shift, to avoid needing to go to the loo – there isn’t one. There are eighty train drivers working for Sabrina’s company, but only three are women. Sabrina operates in a man’s world, but she seems not to notice. It goes without saying, to her mind. The men can pee in a paper cup or out of the door while the train’s moving; she’d have to radio the signaller to ask if she could stop. But for Sabrina, every stop is a small setback. She wants to keep moving and clock off on time, if she can.

After she’s eaten, she lights a cigarette: a Marlboro Light, the long variety. It glows in her fingers. The Taurus has an ashtray on the wall with a hinged lid. The rain has eased off. A goods train comes towards her and turns up its headlights, like a three-eyed creature. Sabrina flashes her lights and raises a hand. When people working through the night see each other, they always give a friendly wave. It’s something the masses of people asleep right now have no idea about. Then once again, trees with empty nests sweep past, bleak stations, signals, lights.

Soon after the Wall came down, Sabrina gave birth to her son. She was twenty years old. After a year with the baby, when she wanted to go back to work, Deutsche Reichsbahn was about to merge with Deutsche Bundesbahn. She was offered a security job in Hanover, but she didn’t want to be a security guard, and she didn’t want to go to Hanover. She took severance pay and started training as a bilingual secretary, a career that the job centre suggested.

In their free time, Sabrina and Mirco trained in a gym that belonged to a Russian. Sabrina got just as obsessive about it as she had with her swim training as a child. Mirco became self-employed and set up a small haulage company. He took out a loan. Sabrina signed the agreement as guarantor. Work did not materialise, and Mirco was left without a job, but with plenty of debt. Instead of looking for work, Mirco lay around on the sofa all day. Sabrina had no idea how she could feed three people. She took her son and moved out, but then found she couldn’t bear the thought of breaking up her family, and she went back to Mirco. She sent him to see the Russian, who owned a nightclub as well as a gym. Mirco started working as a bouncer there. A door opened into a different world.

At some point, Mirco came home and suggested that Sabrina should go on the game. She agreed. Mirco didn’t force her into it: the fact that it was her decision is close to her heart. They had debts to pay and something had to be done. Sabrina abandoned her bilingual secretary training and took her ID and AIDS test results to the police station. She paid 150 marks in ‘lamppost rent’ every shift to the pimp she nicknamed ‘Ponce’. On the first night she didn’t earn a single penny.

More experienced colleagues taught her how to hustle, and how to pretend to give a blowjob while actually using a hand and a cheek. She secretly tried it out on Mirco. The extra-thick condom helped, and the long-haired wig hid Sabrina’s face. Mirco didn’t suspect a thing.

After that, the couple started their shifts once their son had gone to sleep. Sabrina would stand under the streetlight dressed as a Barbie doll, in high-heeled white boots, nude leggings, a wide belt done up tight, her face hidden under the wig of fake blonde hair. On a good day, she’d get fifteen customers in a shift. She went after her punters in their cars. Professional honour entailed driving her prices higher, and every little extra had its fee. Stripping off in a campervan: fifty marks for each item of clothing. Intimate shaving: a thousand marks. When a punter drove up with his car full of balloons for Sabrina to burst one by one with her stiletto heels, that was a month’s pay. On Mondays and Thursdays her regulars brought her something from McDonald’s. Mirco and his pals would sit in a car with binoculars and a notebook, writing down registration numbers and keeping an eye on the clock.

04:00, Regensburg Station. Her shift should have finished at 3:30. Sabrina waits for the green light, or a message over the radio, she clears up her things, pulls out a packet of wipes and cleans the control panel. ‘Hookers aren’t victims. They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s the punters who are the fools.’ It doesn’t even occur to Sabrina to regard herself as a victim, although it would be easy to, with everything that’s happened. She quickly learned to take her fate in her own hands instead, and never to let go of it again.

She drives the empty train into the siding, heaves the door open, climbs down the steps and uncouples it. She takes the engine to the marshalling yard, goes to the cab at the other end and parks the Taurus behind another engine. She sorts out the logbooks in their compartment and checks if the sand levels are OK, then turns off the electronic display. Sabrina puts her rucksack on her shoulder. She locks the engine up with a large key and, dawn breaking, she walks over gravel and timbers to the station, and then on towards her hotel.

On the day when all the debts had been paid, Sabrina stopped working on the streets. Mirco, now used to so much money, wanted her to carry on but Sabrina refused and got an admin job with the local authority, in the maintenance payments department. Every day she’d sort out papers, label them, and file them for a full eight hours. Mirco was back on the sofa again, but she never gave him a penny, not even for cigarettes. After a year he pulled himself together, registered at the benefits office and eventually started working behind the bar at a restaurant. In 1999, Sabrina got pregnant for a second time. She stayed at home for three years with her daughter. In 2003 she completed further training to become a train driver. She was nostalgic for her first job, which she’d loved and had never been able to do for long. Six years ago she started working for the company she’s still with: a rail transport business dealing exclusively with freight.

13:30, Regensburg Station, Burger King. After a sleep, Sabrina has a late breakfast of a Whopper meal. She’s feeling good. Her shift starts at 14:30. Sabrina puts on her hi-vis vest, heaves her rucksack over her broad shoulders and trudges to the marshalling yard under the hot midday sun. She unlocks the twenty-metre-long engine, this time a 189, which has a narrow corridor. The steel floor panels clatter with every step she takes. She gets a dustpan and brush to clear out the gravel walked in by the drivers before her. The train is loaded with cars: 23 wagons, 1090 tonnes. Sabrina uses the wagon list to fill out the brake data sheet, calculate the brake weight and the braked weight percentage, and she inputs all the data into the computer. She reports that the train is ready to leave. 16:54 departure, on schedule. As soon as the train leaves the depot Sabrina can let rip, back to Fulda again. She ensconces herself in her seat, her gold earrings flashing in the light, pirate-style. You would never believe that this strapping train driver once stood under a lamppost in a Barbie outfit. She’s just done what she felt she had to. Keeping afloat comes naturally to her.

Sometimes she’s asked if she’s ashamed of her past as a sex worker. But she’s not. ‘If I hadn’t done it, we’d probably still be in debt now. We made a fortune! For me, it’s also part of being an adult: you look in the mirror and think to yourself, “This is me, that’s it.” I always wanted a normal family. And I wanted it with Mirco. For one thing, I really fancy him, and then he’s also my best friend. And the father of my children. And my housewife.’

When she gets to Würzburg, she rings Mirco, who’s had a dentist’s appointment today. After that, she helps her daughter with her homework as she operates the vigilance system and the driver’s brake valve. Fragments of Bavarian and northern German voices waft through the cab from the radio, and there’s a croaking sound whenever the last wagon leaves a tunnel. ‘Sifa! Sifa!’ a recorded woman’s voice pipes out at regular intervals, which means Sabrina has to step on the driver safety switch pedal under her controls to let the system know that she is still conscious, or else the engine will automatically come to an emergency stop. It might have been nice if there had been someone in Sabrina’s life to ask if she was coping every now and then, to keep the plates spinning for her if necessary. But there wasn’t.

21:15, arriving into ‘fucking Fulda’, as railway workers affectionately call the junction. She clears up; her replacement is already standing on the platform. In the evening sun, Sabrina climbs down out of the engine backwards as if she were getting into a swimming pool.

Her granddad, in his time, made sure she was able to swim. These days she can even dive. She did a diving course with her family on her last holiday in Egypt. Only her son stayed at home – he’s twenty-one, and lives with his girlfriend in a flat of their own. The girlfriend is pregnant. Sabrina will be a grandma by Christmas.


Originally published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 25 September 2010, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of German reunification.